R.I. Historical Society celebrates restoration of oldest American theater scenery

CONSERVATORS APPLY minimal amounts of paint to a 200-year-old theater drop curtain in an effort to restore it. / COURTESY RHODE ISLAND HISTORICAL SOCIETY

PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island Historical Society will celebrate the recent restoration of an early, massive view of Providence, painted on a theater drop curtain more than 200 years ago, at its 198th annual meeting on Wednesday.

Painted in 1809, the curtain is believed to be the oldest surviving piece of American theater scenery. It depicts a sweeping view of Providence’s East Side and downtown areas from Smith Hill. The entire image is 15 feet wide and 24 feet tall.

Members of the public will have an opportunity to view the restored drop curtain on Thursday between 1 and 5 p.m. at 110 Benevolent St. in Providence.

The first conservation and stabilization treatments on the drop-scene occurred in the early 1980s and were performed by the Williamstown Conservation Center with the support of the National Endowment for the Arts. Critical support for the most recent project came from Sylvia Brown, a descendant of the man who made Providence’s first permanent theater possible in the 18th century.

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Curtains Without Borders, a Vermont-based firm that specializes in the conservation of historic painted theater scenery, performed the work in July. Three conservators removed 30 years of dust and applied some paint until they felt there was an overall improvement that was not intrusive to the eye.

They concentrated on the vertical seams and long diagonal scratches. The team also repaired minor rips and tears with appropriate support materials. Due to the historical importance of this artifact, it was agreed to limit the amount of painting restoration performed, prioritizing the longevity of the material itself over a dramatic replication of how the image looked the day it was completed.

“Though we have been looking into a digital restoration to demonstrate the original scene’s quality,” Richard Ring, deputy executive director for collections and interpretation at the Rhode Island Historical Society, said in a news release.

The Rhode Island Historical Society said that in the early 1790s, Boston was resistant to theatrical entertainment because of its Puritan roots, but Rhode Island was more receptive. After many meetings and discussions, it was agreed to allow a permanent theater to be established in Providence.

John Brown gave the lot at Westminster and Mathewson streets, where Grace Church now stands, and subscribed for seven shares of stock in the company. Construction on the building began in August 1795.

“Most of our members will be surprised to know that there is a scene on the back” on the restored drop curtain, Ring said. “The work done allowed us to take pictures of it. … We’re just excited that the preservation of this American treasure demonstrates Rhode Island’s performing-arts legacy and is a great way to gear up for our 2020 theme of ‘Spotlight RI.’ ”

The historical society will celebrate the preservation of work during its annual meeting for its members at 5:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Rhode Island Historical Society headquarters, 110 Benevolent St., Providence.

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